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Nigerian cocoa output to double by 2015

Agriculture Minister, Akinwunmi Adesina, said production would rise to 500,000 metric tonnes due to improved infrastructure and financing

Nigeria's cocoa production will double in the next four years, while wheat and rice imports are set to fall as Africa's most populous nation strives to be more food self-sufficient, the country's agriculture minister told Reuters.

Nigeria, the world's fourth-largest cocoa producer, has had stagnant output over recent decades due to poor infrastructure and a focus on its oil business, the mainstay of sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest economy.

Agriculture Minister, Akinwunmi Adesina, said cocoa production would rise to 500,000 metric tonnes by 2015, from around 250,000 metric tonnes now, aided by improved infrastructure and financing.

"We need to get our farmers the right kind of cocoa seedlings, revamp our plantations and improve the quality of our cocoa that is supplied by our farmers, that means that we must provide them with better fertilizers," he told Reuters in the capital Abuja.

"We have a programme with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) where we have leveraged from commercial banks 450 billion naira for lending to private sector, to farmers, fertilizer companies, food manufacturers."

A series of previous agriculture ministries have promised to boost cocoa production above 500,000 metric tonnes but have failed to deliver.

Agriculture contributed around 40 percent of GDP last year and provides around 70 percent of employment, according to the national statistics bureau.

However, the sector has been on the decline since the 1960s and Nigeria remains a net importer of food, while oil exports account for around 95 percent of foreign exchange revenues.

Adesina has pledged to grow more rice, which he says Nigeria spends 356 billion naira a year on importing, and reduce wheat imports by 10 percent, replacing the lost product with cassava as an alternative for flour mill owners.

"We don't have comparative advantage in wheat production. We are currently spending 635 billion naira importing wheat into this country but yet we have farmers producing cassava."

"It is very clear that substitution of 10 percent cassava flour for wheat flour is fine for bread and for confectionary and it will create a huge amount of jobs here in Nigeria that alone will mop up around 500,000 metric tonnes of cassava roots in this country and stabilise prices for farmers."

Flour mill owners would be offered incentives to use cassava, he added.

POVERTY

President Goodluck Jonathan has said agriculture is the key to reducing unemployment and poverty in Nigeria, where most of the 140 million inhabitants live on less than $2 a day and spend around 80 percent of their income on food.

The knock-on effect for real incomes from food production is particularly apparent as food makes up around 50 percent of consumer inflation. The CBN has made keeping inflation under control a priority of monetary policy.

"We need to very quickly raise the production of food that will lower the cost of food for people in the market and therefore real wages will rise, so that is our goal. It is not just food for food sake it is food for the whole economy, to reduce inflation and for boosting jobs," Adesina said.

Unemployment is feeding unrest in Nigeria with increased ethnic and religious tensions in the central "Middle Belt", where the largely Christian south meets the mostly Muslim north, killing hundreds in the last three months.

Meanwhile, a radical Islamist sect in the remote northeast has been behind almost daily shootings and bombings, including a suicide attack at the U.N. building in Abuja last month that killed at least 23 people and wounded more than 100.

"I think while there is no question we have a number of ethnic and religious undertones but I think the fundamental problem is we have a lot of unemployment," the minister said.

"Youths don't want (unrest) they want employment."

The minister's plans are heavily reliant on success in other areas of the economy, including the gas sector to boost fertilizer production and improve quality and the power and transport sectors to improve infrastructure to attract foreign investment.

The petroleum minister has laid out a road map for harnessing Nigeria's gas reserves, the seventh-largest in the world, and has agreed deals in principle to build two fertilizer plants and five fertilizer blending plants.

Persistent power outages are a major brake on Nigeria's economy and the solution is long-term. The power ministry hopes to double power output to 6,000 megawatts by 2013 but this only scratches the surface of the 40,000 megawatts the country needs.

Political wrangling and corruption have prevented Nigeria from utilising its vast energy resources for domestic needs in the past several decades.